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Braves prospect retrospect: Jason Heyward

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From his Opening Day home run to extraordinary contract, the life and times of the former Atlanta Braves’ budding star has been a memorable one.

Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

With the Minor League Baseball season officially cancelled, let’s rev up the old Prospect Retrospect series and take a look at one of the Atlanta Braves’ brightest young stars of the 2000s.

First, in case you don’t remember the series, take a look back at previous Prospect Retrospects we did earlier this season.

Jason Heyward, Baseball’s top prospect

Heyward’s rise to the big leagues was certainly not void of any fanfare, but it all started in high school. Pretty much a hometown kid, Heyward hailed from Henry County not far down I-85 from Turner Field. He was one of the best left-handed hitters in the MLB draft class known for an advanced eye and approach, but as the story goes, that’s what worked against him.

The young outfielder was often pitched around, and many scouts didn’t see what Heyward had to offer. Luckily, the Braves did.

Heyward went 14th overall in the 2007 MLB draft with outfielder Matt LaPorta — an established college bat — going before him and other bats like Josh Vitters, Matt Dominguez and Beau Mills also selected. The 17-year-old wasted little time making an impression, slashing .302/.354/.488 in 12 games split between the Gulf Coast and Appy Leagues.

Heading into 2008, Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus had Heyward a top-50 prospect, listed at No. 28 and No. 36 respectively. After an impressive campaign split between Rome and Myrtle Beach, Heyward entered 2009 as a consensus top-10 prospect and after reaching Triple A at the age of 19, with a nice showing in the Arizona Fall League, Heyward entered 2010 ranked the No. 1 overall prospect in baseball by Baseball America and No. 2 overall by Baseball Prospectus.

The Legend of J-Hey starts right off the bat

April 5, 2010. Opening Day. Big Z, Carlos Zambrano — a pitcher who had become a perennial All Star — on the bump against baseball’s top prospect. The 20-year-old comes to the bat with the game tied in the bottom of the first and gives the fans in the Chop House something to see close up, launching a bomb to right field.

From there, Heyward was off and running. He slashed .277/.393/.456 as a rookie adding 18 home runs, 29 doubles and walking 91 times. He had the tough luck of debuting the same season that Buster Posey was officially a rookie and finished runner up to the San Francisco Giants’ young catcher for Rookie of the Year honors. He also had five outfield assists and posted a 15 defensive runs saved above average.

Heyward was up and down with the bat over the next few seasons — largely in part to injury — but was quickly establishing himself as one of the best defensive outfielders in the game, picking up a Gold Glove in both 2012 and 2014. He likely would have earned another in 2013, however a fastball to the jaw limited him to just 104 games. Most of his defensive stats were right in line with his other Gold Glove-winning years.

That 2014 season was mounting up as a good one and the contract talks were really heating up. Talks of Heyward being a 20-million-dollar man were quickly becoming a reality in the MLB market. In one of the earlier moves of the Braves tearing it down, Heyward was shipped to the St. Louis Cardinals for Tyrell Jenkins and Shelby Miller on Nov. 17, 2014.

Jason Heyward today

Sure enough, J-Hey got his pay day. After just one year with the Cardinals, the Chicago Cubs signed Heyward to an eight-year, $184 million contract entering the 2016 season. Though Heyward had his worst season as a pro in his 2016 Cubs debut, he won his third Gold Glove and the Cubs brought home their first World Series since 1908. It helped people forget about Heyward’s forgettable numbers.

For awhile.

Heyward’s power seemed to dissipate over the next two seasons and from 2016 to 2018 he hit a mere 26 home runs, a far cry from the power bat he looked to be developing into with the Braves. Many of Heyward’s numbers were on a Hall of Fame trajectory as a Brave — as cited in this article from The Ringer in 2018 — and seemingly fell right off a cliff. The on-base percentage, the rising power, the hard hit balls, they were all gone.

Now whether it was nagging injuries or changes in approach as the same article mentioned above references, the fact is, Heyward hasn’t lived up to his contract. The positive is that last season, he looked a lot more like the prospect we once knew, hitting 21 home runs (grant it, a livelier ball) but he also posted his highest OBP as a Cub, a respectable .343.

In Heyward’s stead began the Braves’ career of Nick Markakis. Love him or leave him, Markakis had been a staple in the lineup and right field for the past five years, before opting out of the 2020 season on the morning of Monday, July 6. He played an average of 159 games per season between 2015-2018. His place in recent Braves’ history has certainly been a straw that stirs the drink.

As for Heyward? Neither player acquired in the deal are still with the Braves, but instead were flipped into Luke Jackson, Ender Inciarte and Dansby Swanson. Not a bad trio right there.

The rise and fall of baseball’s former top prospect has been one to watch, but remember this. Heyward enters his age-30 season in 2020. With three more years and over $60 million on the books in Chicago after this year, there seems to be many a chapter left to write.